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Opinion: Remembering Columbine

Columbine flower
Flickr/readontheroad Creative Commons
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Colorado Columbine

Twenty years ago, I was a 25-year-old news producer, working in Denver at the television station I grew up watching. I was a young, driven journalist but naïve.

I remember producing stories about a school shooting in 1998 in Jonesboro, Arkansas that killed 5 students. It seemed extremely random and unlikely to be repeated. It seemed like people wanted the school shootings to end.

Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colorado was one of those schools I wished I could have attended as a teenager. I went to a small high school southeast of Denver. My high school’s entire population was 300 but Columbine was six times that. Columbine had comparatively large facilities. It was on the western edge of the Denver metro area and closer to the majestic mountains. It was named after the state flower of Colorado.

1999 had already been quite the year.  The countdown was on to the new millennium. The Denver Broncos won the Super Bowl on January 31. John Elway was the NFL’s quarterback king. We were dancing to Ricky Martin’s “La Vida Loca” and cheering Lauryn Hill’s five Grammy wins.  The biggest story early in the year so far was President Bill Clinton acquitted on articles of impeachment.

April 20, 1999. I actually had the day off.  I met a friend for lunch who told me they had heard something about some shots fired near a school.  Probably nothing I thought. Remember – there was no Twitter or Facebook. I don’t think I had a cell phone at the time.  There were no “push alerts” or streaming video.

I jumped in the car after lunch to run some errands and heard voices of the anchors from my station von the radio. The switch instantly went off in my brain. Many of the Denver radio stations had begun simulcasting different Denver TV newscasts about a shooting inside Columbine High School. I knew it was huge. But once again I was naïve as to what was about to unfold.

As a real journalist does, I drove right into work to see how I could help. It was around 2pm. I didn’t leave until 8am the next morning. You’ve probably seen the images of students running out of Columbine, armed police officers slowly trying to make their way into the classrooms. What I remember – the chaos nearly in slow motion. Our first crews on scene sent in video of children being treated outside in a nearby parking lot. I remember parents showing up anxiously trying to connect with their students. I remember it seeming like hours and hours before police were to search every room of this huge high school that I once admired.

I remember it being nightfall when we learned 13... Yes, 12 students and a teacher were dead. I remember our crews interviewing parents still holding on hope that their children were hiding in the school – only to learn later their students wouldn’t come home. And as if that wasn’t enough – there were concerns about bombs being placed on the property. It was hours and hours of new information and questioning who were these young killers and where did they ascertain the idea to this and the weapons to carry it out?

As it does often in Colorado, it snows in April. The next morning – Columbine High School was blanketed in fresh, wet snow. But another storm had also arrived… network crews, reporters from around the world and thousands of mourners.  Many of the dead students had driven to school. Their cars in the high school parking lot were covered with flowers, pictures, teddy bears and more.  Soon, 13 crosses were erected near the school, each bearing the name of the dead.

And there was another more disturbing new normal. People were calling school threats – one after the other. As we prepared to cover 13 funerals… our crews raced around the Denver metro area as schools were placed on lockdown or shut down. There were frightened parents and children everywhere. The nightmare continued.

I’ll repeat this for anyone who believes journalists love covering a story like this – they don’t. There were tears – real breakdowns – from reporters who witnessed the students severe injuries, people offended by the media’s presence and anger at us for not demanding better answers from law enforcement. We tried to be as sensitive as we could when asking grieving families for pictures or some way to tell their loved ones’ story even as they had done so for other outlets.

And then there were the funerals. There’s nothing that can prepare you for hearing loved ones grieve and talk about the potential of 12 young people and a beloved teacher who tried to shield students from bullets.  I wasn’t in the field with reporters and photojournalists but the stories and images beamed into our control room during the newscasts brought us to tears nightly.  Many journalists in Colorado, slipped into depression.

That was just the first few days after April 20, 1999. There’s no happy ending. President Clinton convened a White House summit to address school violence. But in the 20 years since Columbine, the Washington Post reports more than 223,000 American children have been exposed to gun violence during classroom hours. Not all of them were mass shootings like Sandy Hook in Connecticut (26 dead) or Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida (17 dead).

Twenty years ago, people vowed to never allow the tragedy at Columbine High School to ever repeat itself at an American school again. I may not have been the only naive one.

Editor's note: Reginald Hardwick is the Digital News Director at WKAR public media. Prior to joining WKAR in 2017, he was a television news producer in Dallas/Fort Worth and Denver, Colorado.

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